TV News a la carte.

Friday, September 25th, 1998

I’m laptopping this week from San Antonio, the brutally hot-and-muggy site of the annual grand bazaar of broadcast news. The Radio and Television News Directors Association conference has a collection of seminars and speakers that gives it a thin veneer of legitimacy, but the get-together really centers around an exhibition of the stuff sold in the name of “improving” newscasts.

So, get out your checkbook:

You can pick up a new news set here, all gleaming chrome and rich wood, for fifty grand and up (WSB’s new set was way, way more than that), or you can buy a Forward Looking Infrared Radar for your news helicopter-and if you don’t have a chopper, they’re had at the RTNDA for a price, too.

But why buy a real set when something upwards of six figures will get you a virtual set, changeable at the click of a mouse, always perfectly lit and scuff-free?

Shop for satellite trucks in aisle 1, and duck inside a Sony booth crammed with cameras and tape machines in aisle 2. Automation systems and robotic cameras, sit next to weather computers that will spin you sickeningly in three dimensions around the meteorological disturbance du jour. (Be thankful: you’ve been spared the experience of listening to Texas-accented weatherfolk trying to pronounce “Georges..”)

But transcending all the pricey hardware is the real commodity: programming. I’m talking reporting, features, and even those sweeps week specials that are poured identically into newscasts around the country.

Pick up customized live shots a la carte from Fox NewsEdge (they say it’s “the feed you need”) or the enormous CNN Newssource booth plopped in the exact center of the exhibition floor. For a price, you can get reporters you’ve never heard of reciting stale facts from the wires while they stand in front of the crashed plane, bus, or Presidency. A quick packaged report, and then the moment news directors are really paying for-when the guy at the crash site-live!-answers questions and tosses “back to you, Amanda and Russ.” And moments later, he’s saying “back to you, Stacey and Tom” to some other place, some other audience fooled by this televised slight-of-hand.

News Directors, faces painted with the anxiety of job insecurity, ask the sales person to make them just as cool as KCBS, or to get that WSVN kind of impact. Deals are made with a snappy exchange of cards and email addresses, and yet another market (we all live in a market, y’know) looks a little bit more like everyplace else. Think it’s only in Atlanta that stations are “live, local, and latebreaking,” “dedicated, determined, and dependable”, with “coverage you can count on”?

You know better.

But do the NDs? As fewer and fewer people watch local newscasts, more and more of what is poured into these broadcasts is pre-chewed, unoriginal, over-consulted, and if you ask me, unwatchable. So fewer people watch.

The programmers of television news might catch on to the pattern here. Sometime.

But until then, and for now, we’re live in San Antonio. I’m your name here, Eyewitness News. Back to…uh…back to you.